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Panel: At-risk Long Island kids face steepest learning curve amid pandemic

Chairs are spaced six feet apart and face

Chairs are spaced six feet apart and face shields are at each desk in this classroom at Jericho High School, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Long Island’s most vulnerable children face the steepest challenges to learning during the pandemic and educators are scrambling to respond, said panelists Wednesday night at a Long Island Latino Teachers Association webinar.

"There’s always been a gap between those who have and those who do not," said Richard Bellis, director of strategic planning and accountability for the New York City Department of Education. "COVID has magnified that."

Participants representing school districts in Brentwood, Central Islip and Wyandanch said chronic absenteeism, a problem sometimes associated with food and housing insecurity, had grown worse during the pandemic.

"I have students who are absent a week, two weeks: They’re the only one who’s COVID negative" in their households, said Ricardo Campos, a Central Islip math teacher. "They’re becoming the guardian" of older relatives. "Math is so sequential, if a student is out for a week, they’ve already lost the foundation they need to proceed."

Some students in Wyandanch attending fully remote school might go days without logging in, said Christine Jordan, assistant superintendent for administrative and instructional accountability for the Wyandanch school district. The district responded with dialogue and outreach and has connected students with social workers or services through the Wyandanch Community Resource Center.

Long Island students’ access to computers and the internet was crucial over the last year of hybrid schooling but sometimes problematic, panelists said. Campos and Jordan both said their districts had ordered internet-ready devices last spring but didn’t take delivery until mid-fall.

Marlene Ramos Velita, coordinator of registration, attendance and Census for Brentwood, said her district had largely been able to ensure that families there had access they needed, albeit after frequent meetings. But Campos said equipment alone wasn’t sufficient for his classes.

"They may be coming from Central America or countries where they don’t have this resource," he said. "This may be the first time they’re exploring and getting to touch a laptop." Sometimes, he said, he must teach basic tech skills "before I can get into the content."

Already this school year, Jordan said, the pandemic played havoc with registration. It sometimes took weeks to get records for children who’d moved into the area from states whose schools were fully remote. And because pre-K and kindergarten were not compulsory, enrollment dropped and the district had to operate without "all the data we used in past years to predict what our enrollment will be for next year" including not just total enrollment but the numbers of English learners and students with disabilities.

Jordan and the other educators foresee more trouble from standardized tests that are used not just to measure students’ performance, but also schools.

She said it was absurd to use those tests to assess a student in an affluent home and one "living in a basement with two other families who doesn’t have WiFi." There are better ways, she and the other guests said, such as portfolios and long-term projects, but Wyandanch and other low-income districts probably won’t be able to use them.

"We are beholden to these assessments to meet the needs of accountability" for federal and state aid, Jordan said.

For the record: An earlier version of this story misstated the title for Richard Bellis, the director of strategic planning and accountability for the New York City Department of Education.

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